A Belated Merry Christmas from Listening Friday!

So I screwed up this posting somehow as it was supposed to publish on Christmas Day.  However, here it is in all its glory, wishing my 2.5 readers a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a great New Year!

Here's RUN-DMC's classic, Christmas in Hollis:

I'll be taking tomorrow off since it's the holidays, see you next, next Friday.



arr. Bob Thurston: You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

In 1942, Glenn Miller was at the height of popularity on the American music scene.  It was the year following the attack on Pearl Harbor that fully engaged the United States into World War II.  Miller was compelled by civic duty to enlist in the Army with the goal of forming a band to promote morale and patriotism within the US military as well as around the world.

The Navy actually turned him down first.

And look where that got them...
Between his success as a civilian and as an Army bandsman, Miller assembled what can be considered by some to be the best conglomeration of musicians for any given musical period.  He developed a unique sound, using enough familiar textures to capture his audience, but then changing subtle things to make it truly the "Glenn Miller sound".

You may notice today's Listening Friday is not actually a Glenn Miller tune.

Glenn Miller tragically perished in 1944.  He was flying from the UK to France when his plane was lost.  The official story claims that his flight fell victim to an errant drop of explosive ordinance by a flight that was returning from a canceled attack.  Another story claims that the plane was destroyed as a result of friendly fire.  In 1997, a German tabloid published a story that Miller had in fact arrived safely in Paris, but died from a heart attack the following day in a French brothel.

In 1997, I stood at the Glenn Miller memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

You must understand, he is a personal hero of mine.  From my earliest forays into the world of trombone, Miller has been a companion. He was first introduced to me when my father decided that if I were to play trombone I ought to listen to an actual trombone player.  When I stood in Arlington on that hot summer day and contemplated the destructive gossip that had befallen my musical role model...  It hurt.

It was perhaps the first time in my life where I had experienced the possibility that a hero was less than heroic. It was a highly unpleasant experience. Now, much of the sordid tale has been debunked and many other conspiracies have blossomed in the fertile soil of doubt, but most agree that it was in fact false and that Miller met his ends in a tailspin into the ocean.  But that feeling is still carried with me.

So, in a Madsen-esque transfer of epic proportions, I shall now build you two transfer-bridges from Glenn Miller to the Grinch and back again. First of all, Glenn Miller's goal of transforming the military music machine did not die with him in 1944. As the Air Force was born, so was the Air Force band and eventually, carrying on the mantle of military jazz, the Airmen of Note.  There is also an authorized "Glenn Miller Band" that is civilian-led, but that's a story for another time.

The Airmen of Note continue to play his charts as well as many of their own, including our listening for today.  "Your a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" was originally written by Dr. Seuss with music supplied by Albert Hague.  Thurl Ravenscroft provided the remarkable bass voice that made the song a hit.  But Bob Thurston himself (a product of the Florida State College of Music) arranged his own version for the Airmen of Note as the chief composer-arranger for the group.

The bass trombone solo that opens the piece (and continues throughout) is performed by a gentleman named Dudley Hinote, another FSU grad and also the Flight Chief for the Note. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with bass trombone, it's essentially what happens when you mix a flamethrower that runs on testosterone with a regular trombone.

I call it, "The Apocalypse in Bb"
So, the bass trombone is the tenor trombone's more aggressive, alcoholic big brother. Chief Master Sergeant Hinote offers a commanding presence on the horn, really defining his version of the Grinch, making Thurston's arrangement on par with the original for sure.

So without Glenn Miller, we wouldn't have the Airmen of Note or Bob Thurston's arrangement or Dudley Hinote's wicked bass bone solo.  Transfer #1: complete.  Now for #2, let's go back to the hero thing. The problem with having real heroes (and I mean real as in the sense that we're not talking about Superman or some dumbass Pokemon thing or whatever you stupid kids watch these days) is that they are in fact real. Humans are completely flawed creatures. We have the capability to learn from the mistakes of other humans around us, but quite often inexplicably fail to do so. Many times quite deliberately! We cave to temptation, we are lazy, we are sometimes too industrious, there's avarice and oppression and just generally being a not great person in general.

Humans tend to make lousy heroes.

But the problem comes because I think somewhere in the creation of these human supermen and superwomen, we forget that they are in fact fallible. We project upon them the antithesis of all our insecurities and shortfalls. We cast them in light that shines of invincibility. And it just can't hold up. There's no shortage of examples in history of heroic individuals cracking under the pressure. Seeking quiet respite and release at the hands of less than reputable folk. And they invariably get caught and we all get swept up in the frenzy, because nothing sells soap better than Bob Johnson, family man and local hero being caught with his pants down at the neighbor's house.

Florida Man to the rescue!

It's reflected in our TV, our media, our society.  We look to reality TV to provide us a template for how we should conduct ourselves within our microcosms.  The problem is, these heroes (or antiheroes) aren't really human anymore. They've been invented by TV producers and the like to create a superficial entity that generates enough mass appeal to, again, sell soap.

Or ducks or something.  I can't fathom this, people actually watch this crap?!
When I think back to that day the seed of doubt was planted in my young mind, and I stood at that small block of marble on the ground in Virginia, fighting back tears, it still hurts as bad now as it did then. Despite knowing that the idiot German who wrote that article was essentially disproven to oblivion and that Miller most likely met his death at the hands of a simple accident, it still hurts for some reason.  And I don't have an explanation.

But today, I think of the Grinch and those goofy little Who-people. I think of how his jealousy and anger brought him to bring down what he actually wished he possessed himself. And that in the end, the little Who-villites really were good heroes, because their Christmas celebration didn't have anything to do with presents or lights or trees or any of that crap. It was just well and good enough that they were together. But they also aren't real.

To look in the face of complete destruction and devastation and to pick up and keep moving.  That's what being a hero is all about.  I will remember my hero, Major Glenn Miller of the Army Air Force, as sacrificing his life as a civilian to support his country and ultimately giving his life because he felt the music he loved was important enough to risk it all.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

See you on Christmas for a very special Listening Friday edition!  No homework!  School's out forever!


Since it's the USAF, you can download the mp3 for free!  Here's a link to their site.



Sussex Mummer's Christmas Carol: Percy Grainger by kind permission of Miss Lucy E. Broadwood

From the late 1800's to the early 1900's, the hotbed of musical creativity was a little area of England south of London known as Sussex County.  We've discussed before the trend of composers in the late Romantic, early Modern era to seek out the rich vocal tradition in the English countryside. It was the perfect fit to the growing popularity for the development of melody born of the Romantic Era, and there was plenty of English oral tradition being passed down from generation to generation through the use of song. This of course is nothing new, mankind has been sharing oral history through music since before the ancient Greeks. The exciting part at this place and time was how composers were beginning to treat these melodies in lush choral and band arrangements.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was one such composer.  He favored piano above all else, as he aspired through most of his life to become a concertizing pianist.  He succeeded for the most part at his goal, and a remarkable byproduct was that he began to arrange his piano works for band, orchestra and chorus. Grainger was an early technophile and utilized the phonograph to actually record these folk melodies, compiling a database of sorts and then attempting to capture the subtle nuance in each tune as he transformed these into arrangements for piano as well as full ensembles.

Which became easier after her perfected cloning technology.
However despite Grainger's fervor in collecting such gems, the earliest collection of such folk songs was attributed to a gentleman named, Rev. John Broadwood. He was the first to publish words and music together to these folksongs of his community.  He had a niece who also took to this familial musicality pretty well, Miss Lucy E. Broadwood (1858-1929). There's no shortage of companions that helped in the Broadwood's goal to catalog and preserve the folk music around them. I can't help but think this was a difficult task at times though since most of the people singing were essentially illiterate when it came to music.  Grainger fondly wrote his arrangements to carefully capture the rhythmic inaccuracies and tonal shifting that the amateur singers would produce and wrote them into many of his arrangements.

One such work preserved by Miss Broadwood would be the Sussex Mummer's Christmas Carol.  Now a mummer by today's definition is someone who puts on a public play involving costumes or disguises, the death of a hero (or heroes), and the resurrection of said hero(es) by means of some miraculous potion provided by a doctor or other such healer.  The play itself is usually performed outdoors or in some public place, but often door-to-door in a caroling fashion. They are usually comedic, but often exhibit some great struggle between good and evil.  Broadwood notated the Christmas Carol after watching the exhibition of, "St. George, the Turk, and the seven champions of Christendom".  The mummers (sometimes called tipteerers) sung the carol as a finale from what I can determine.  The play they put on featured the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and Wales as each character/saint demonstrated what they were famous for (St. Patrick getting the snakes out of Ireland, St. James fighting an imaginary battle against African Muslims, etc.).  It made sense for the conclusion to feature the carol, as Christmas was a common theme in all of the mummer activities.

As was murder.

So Lucy hears this and writes it down.  Grainger hears it from Lucy and arranges it for piano.  Richard Franko Goldman hears Grainger's piano version and tells him he has to arrange it for band.  Grainger dies. Goldman, undeterred, takes up the mantle and arranges it himself.  Goldman was the son of Edwin Franko Goldman who, among other things, founded the Goldman band in New York City and also the American Bandmaster's Association.  So, the younger (and equally skilled) Goldman premieres this piece at Iowa State College in 1963 and the rest is history.

The carol itself is interesting since the majority of it focuses on the redeeming death of Jesus Christ and the resurrection as opposed to his birth, as do most Christmas carols.  The lyrics are available here if you're interested.

Another interesting bit about the mummers is the fact that they are not just in Sussex. You may be familiar with the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, PA held each New Year's Day. It's known to be the oldest folk festival in the United States and it does indeed draw its roots from the tipteerer/mummer tradition from Sussex.  It pulls its traditions from many countries, not just England and the parade is comprised of elaborate floats that are often human powered pieces of scenery as well as incredibly elaborate costumes and acts that take months of preparation to create and perfect.  Musical groups are also included and are as eccentrically garbed as any of the other parade entries.

Step 1- Strap a Mardi Gras float to your back.  Step 2- Party.
The whole concept evolved from a tradition of visiting one's neighbors the day after Christmas dressed in wildly outlandish costumes. Other traditions carried over involved firing guns into the air and performing poetry, rhymes and songs for beer.  As this tradition of door to door entertainment evolved, it eventually became a parade in 1901 when presumably residents grew weary of passing out alcohol to armed and drunken wassailers in medieval costumes wandering around for a week after Christmas.

We must take your rum and return to Valhalla. 
The parade carries on the same spirit and tradition founded in those early medieval plays in the 1700's. However, despite the occasionally bacchanalian nature some of the mummer related activities take on, the Christmas Carol is a bit of a reprieve. It begins with a fairly standard, choir-like introduction of the melody that starts with a woodwind texture, slowly and gracefully giving way to trumpet. The thing that strikes me as most interesting is the phrasing and dynamic choices established by Grainger in the original piano score.  The first YouTube video you'll see shows the score as the piano version is played, so you can see the care Grainger took in labeling the manner in which it should be performed. The second video is the North Texas Wind Symphony performing Goldman's setting (it's the best I could find online, there are better performances of this however).  The first statement introduces the melody with a plodding 8th note undercurrent. The second statement gets a bit bolder with a bit of modulation and a very interesting counter melody introduced by the horns. It replaces a lot of the 8th note undercurrent from the first statement, which is still partially intact in the lower woodwinds and brass.  Finally, it returns to the triumphant original key and finishes the theme with a few additions of new chords in a few spots.

It would be interesting to do some research on how much of the final band version of this piece was Goldman's decision-making versus Grainger's.  I hear a lot of Grainger in it, but knowing that Goldman completed it makes it interesting, especially when you consider that he was now the fourth known person to have his hands in the mix- starting of course with the tipteerers who performed it, then Lucy E. Broadwood, and Percy Grainger.

I like Christmas music that exists somewhere between jolly and depressing.  Not to say Christmas isn't always a wonderful time of year, but there's something about the holiday that really displays a wide range of emotion for me. Perhaps it's the dichotomy of the birth of Jesus, juxtaposed with the fact that some 30 years later he would be faced with a gruesome death.  Maybe it's the often bemoaned hardships many endure during this time of year being apart from loved ones resultant of circumstances beyond anyone's control.  Or rather, those who are no longer with us in a physical sense, those who have passed over.  I like that Christmas is such a happy time of year because it has the potential for such sorrow. I know that sounds odd, perhaps even certifiably insane, but I really believe we measure happiness in contrasts. Without knowing what's sad, we find ourselves unable to know if we are in fact happy.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Homework: You get this week off.  Go find your happy Christmas.

See you next Friday.


North Texas Wind Symphony


Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium

There is some music which has the potential to exhaust us both emotionally and physically. However, I am not referring towards pieces that require or demand an abundance of technical prowess, but rather music that with it comes a heavy burden. For me, one of the most draining pieces of this nature was Stjepan Šulek’s trombone sonata 'Vox Gabrieli' which aims to chronicle the adventures and exploits of that famed archangel, Gabriel.  There are some who proclaim that it was he who heralded the birth of Jesus Christ.  Milton's Paradise Lost proclaims that it will be he who announces the return of the Lord via epic trumpet explosion.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgment


I performed this work when I was a senior in college as a part of my required recital. Not to go into too much detail, but the end of the work follows a few ethereal and contrasting light melodic passages to bring forth a finale that is nothing short of diabolical. You can hear and feel the end of days occurring. In that final moment, when all is lost, there is a passage that floats through. To me it spoke volumes. In it I could see the tired angel turning a downward glance toward the condemned planet. In a single cathartic and sacrificial gesture he acknowledges the tremendous agony and suffering to be but a part of a greater plan.  He turns toward the culmination of his assignment.

The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Salvador Dali

Very heavy.

Performing it took a lot of me emotionally. It’s one of few pieces I felt an incredibly strong connection with on the trombone. I often found it useful to study a piece ad nauseum, to find every scrap of history or knowledge about the composer, the work, the subject, etc. I feel it makes us understand the full intent of the composer, particularly when the matter at hand is as grave as the Revelation.

But today is not about Šulek or his trombone sonata.  So, what do you get if you cross Bob Ross, Paul Bunyan, William Riker, Ernest Hemingway, and your grandfather?

The correct answer is Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943).  Lauridsen grew up in the Pacific Northwest, prior to becoming a composer professionally he worked for the forest service as a firefighter and lookout, stationed on a tower near Mount St. Helens.  He frequently spends time in the outdoors as he often frequents Waldron island, which is essentially the Pacific Northwest version of Amish country (without any Amish people and just the simple, plain living).

The video below is really fascinating, because he makes what he does sound so utterly simplistic. I spent the week listening to Lauridsen's works performed by the Elora Festival singers and I have to say my overall opinion of the man seems to be based firmly in my belief that somewhere deep within his psyche, he has communicated with Giovanni Gabrieli on an alternate plane of existence.  His music exhibits a profound ethereal quality, but at the same time manages to speak to a very human nature. Consider him a modern Gabrieli or perhaps a Gabrieli add9.

Or if you'd rather have a simpler analogy.
O Magnum Mysterium is a piece with a long tradition of many varied settings.  The text itself references the birth of Jesus Christ and was originally part of a type of Gregorian chant known as Responsorial. Essentially, the priest would sing a verse and the choir would chant the chorus, back and forth. This was all part of a nighttime liturgical service in the Catholic church that took place in the evening around Christmastime. The text for the work is as follows (translated from the Latin):

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

I'm not sure what God looks like. I kinda get the feeling that many other people in this world have a better understanding of what God might be or represent than I do. There is, of course, no shortage of opinion on the matter and I don't really mean to delve into a religious debate through this entry. My own personal beliefs lie within the concept that God, as a omnipotent force in our universe, is one in the same with the forces that hold everything together. I think nothing could be more poetic and meaningful than considering God to be the very metaphorical fibers that bind atoms to one another.  And as we as a species continually unravel and discover these laws, the mystery persists and evolves. That is just such a powerful image to me.

I realize that's a bit of a jump from an old white guy with a beard sitting on a cloud, but like I said- I'm not here to start a religious debate. What I am here to say is that when I close my eyes and listen to this piece of music, I cannot describe what I see, but in what I hear I feel as though I can begin to comprehend the face of God. I'm not sure if that's what Dr. Lauridsen was setting out to achieve, but nevertheless he certainly made one hell of a Christmas carol.

Homework: Close your eyes, listen, visualize. Write what you see.

See you next Friday.


Note: The first video is a really interesting interview with the composer himself regarding his piece Dirait-on.  The second video is O Magnum Mysterium.



Leroy Anderson:Sleigh Ride

For the 3rd week of Listening Friday Christmas we are looking at a piece that is considered by many to be the quintessential in Christmas listening activity.  I'm speaking of none other than Leroy Anderson's (1908-1975) "Sleigh Ride".

Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up let's...oh.
Mr. Anderson was born in Cambridge to Swedish parents, and took an early interest in music from his mother's organ playing and his father's mandolin. He was a student of piano and trombone in his early years, eventually studying composition at the New England Conservatory and Harvard.  An interesting side note is that he did not have full confidence in his capability to make a decent living working as a musician or composer.  He was quite adept at linguistics and worked towards a Phd. in the study of the German and Scandinavian languages as his "backup plan". As a result, he came to master eleven languages in total. His language skills were also tapped by the Army in 1942 when he was drafted by the US Army and stationed in Iceland as a counter-intelligence officer. However, as you probably have guessed, he ended up remaining with music as a career and the rest is obvious. 

Anderson eventually rose to the ranks of band director at Harvard during his graduate study there which is when he caught the attention of Arthur Feidler, the conductor of the Boston Pops at the time.  Anderson had quite the knack for creating arrangements of light, enjoyable music that captured the heart and imagination of the people of his generation. The appeal of Leroy Anderson for me is that he's a gateway composer of sorts. His arrangements captured the identity of mid 20th century America and have continued to provide a soundtrack for the so-called "good ol' days".

Anderson wrote "Sleigh Ride" in 1948 and Tin-Pan Alley lyricist, Mitchell Parish, wrote lyrics for it two years later. It became an instant hit with the Boston Pops, and has been recorded numerous times and performed by the orchestra on a yearly basis.  Wikipedia boasts a list of about 150 recordings of the work by various artists across many genres of music.

And the "Creepiest Christmas Album Cover" award goes to...
An interesting note about the lyrics, it doesn't actually mention a lick about Christmas. It's essentially some guy riding around on a carriage in the early 20th century in a snow storm with some chick. They go to some farmer's birthday party and have a blast, eating pumpkin pie. Anderson himself got the idea for the work in the middle of July, during a noticeably snow-less point in the year. How it came to be known as the Christmas piece can only be attributed to it's use of sleigh bells.  You see, I have a theory...

Any Music + Sleigh Bells = Holiday Magic
So, as you recover from overeating dry Turkey and many unnecessary injuries at the hands of violence-crazed shoppers at WalMart, I invite you to kick your feet up and listen to two renditions of Leroy's most recognizable piece.  The first is of course the original played by none other than the Boston Pops (led by a very young John Williams!) and the second is an exciting rendition by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (though it does lack the infamous trumpet "neigh").

Enjoy the leftover turkey and all the stuff you bought today.  

Homework: Write a short story about what happens on the sleigh ride.

See you next Friday.




Vince Guaraldi: Oh Christmas Tree

I enjoy precipitation.  All forms of precipitation.  Being a Florida resident, we are often afforded only one or two variants- rain or heavy rain with occasional hail.  There are some who claim that it snows in Florida, however it's more like soft hail than anything that could conceivably be considered snow.

Now, there are some who would say that a love for falling moisture has much to do with the cleansing or purifying nature of the act, or that it's symbolic of the cycle of carbon-based life.  Those are all well-intentioned and beautiful things, however my love of rain and snow and hail and sleet and the life stems not from a psychological perspective, but a visual standpoint.
Of course, there's always Chocolate Rain too.

When it rains, the world is transformed.  You see, it's more often not raining and you've got varying degrees of sun and cloud and after a while it all just gets pretty boring. It all looks the same. But when it all of a sudden rains, well then it's an entirely new world out there! This is especially noticeable when it begins to snow, as the transformation is more long-lived and has a few more stages in its evolution.

Now, these alterations of our reality really aren't vast in the grand scheme of things. They are simply giving us the opportunity to look at our own unique world in a new and different way. Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) was able to do just that with his music.

And his mustache.  
Vince was born in in San Francisco, CA at a very pivotal time in the musical history of the United States.  He grew up into the era of Jazz moving forward into the mainstream of American culture and he himself was actually a big part of it. I can say with almost 100% certainty that every person reading this (even you crazy Russians) have heard Mr. Guaraldi play the piano. Even if you don't know him by name, you've heard his music.

Vince was contacted in the mid-1960's to do the score for a special animated Christmas special for Charles Schulz's Peanuts cartoon. The producer of the special, Lee Mendelson, had heard Guaraldi's trio playing their radio hit, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" and decided that the group had the sound required for the show. Guaraldi accepted and shortly thereafter began to create music for the "Charlie Brown Christmas" special and eventually went on to score 17 specials overall.

Sadly, Guaraldi died young of a heart attack, collapsing the same day after recording tracks for "It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown".  He was 47.

What made him extremely memorable to me, aside from the obvious childhood influences we all probably share, was how he managed to find new ways to tell all these old stories.

Take "Oh Christmas Tree" for instance. A very simple song in general:
Now, I know many of you don't actually read music, but that's OK.  Here's what I want you to look for: the very top line is the melody and the 2nd and 3rd lines are what the piano would play.  The 4th, 5th and 6th lines are just continuations of the music from the top.  It reads left to right, just like you're reading the text now, but it's always stacked together like this when there are multiple parts. Now, above each couple of notes you'll see some letters. These letters refer to specific chords, which are essentially piece parts that make up everything except the melody.

If we were to write this out, you'd notice a bit of a pattern here.  It starts out with G - D - G - Am (which means A minor) - D7.  Then it repeats that same pattern again (G D G Am D7).  Sing O Christmas tree in your head and you'll notice that the melody at the beginning repeats the phrase "Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, how are thy leaves so verdant!"

Same melody, same chords.  Simple. Now check out what Vince did-

Same melody (essentially speaking, he takes some rthymic liberties to make it a bit more zazzy), but look at the different chords!  Now, keep in mind we're in a different key so in this case F = G, D = C, etc. We start out with C7 - F - Gm7 - Am - D7(b9) - Gm7 - Em7(b5) - C7 (b9) - F - Bbm/C. Now, that's a workout of alphabetic proportions.  The additional symbols you see (the 7's, 9's and 5's) all refer to extra notes. With a simple C chord, a musician would assume that the notes C, E, and G are to be heard. When you add a 7 to that chord, we then expect the same C, E, and G, but now also a Bb.  If you throw in a b9 you'd add a Db, and a b5 means Gb instead of G. The Bbm/C implies a minor Bb chord (which is Bb, Db and F) while playing a C below all those on the piano (which is actually a 9th).


Before we go deeper, let's just compare the second phrase to see if it's the same-
1st Phrase -  (C7) - F - Gm7 - Am -                     D7(b9) - Gm7 - Em7(b5) - C7 (b9) - F - Bbm/C
2nd Phrase -            F - Gm7 - Am - Eb9(#11) - D7(b9) - Gm7 -                     C7(b9) - F

The answer is...sorta.  I put the 1st chord of the first phrase in parentheses since it's a pickup note. You'll notice the original version above does not have a chord symbol there at all (but it's essentially the same chord that Vince uses).  The first 3 chords are the same, but after the Am, he adds a bit of chromaticism to enhance the movement towards the D7.  You'll notice that the Gm7 goes straight to the C7(b9) and to the F, omitting the Em7(b5) from the previous phrase. The piece is in the key of F (which if you've read any other Listening Fridays, you might recall that F would be called tonic here) and music always likes to return to tonic.  It's like home.

So in this case, both phrases sorta end on F, but in the first phrase he throws in that Bbm chord with the 9th in the bass to (again) zazz things up a bit.  It makes it more interesting between the phrases because otherwise we'd have the same chord for 2+ measures.

OK. So I totally get it if I lost you back there. We got a little theoretical and that's not for everyone. The big takeaway is that Guaraldi added a lot of color to the standard work to make it his own. From a basic standpoint, it's not any better or worse. It's just...different. For Guaraldi, it was his way of changing his view on the world and in a very special way, it became the norm for many, many people in the world through the magic of that first Peanuts special.  Does that mean that to make good music you just have to add extra notes? No. There is some exceedingly beautiful music (some of which we'll talk about next week) that utilizes very simple harmonic structure to create astounding effects.  But with Vince, he had a knack for turning the standard on its head and making it work.

There's no shortage of American children who got their first dose of jazz during that Christmas in 1965. And there's no shortage of musicians who had that seed planted by Guaraldi and his trio inserting their art into the American psyche. In a big way, it's very poetic. One thing you must realize is that Jazz is uniquely American. In fact, it's the only completely original American music. Everything else you hear today was either imported or a descendent of Jazz.

That crappy pop music you kids listen to? The form that it's built on was invented by Jazz! Those awful three-chord rock tunes? Jazz with guitars and no horns. Even humble Miley Cyrus owes much to the rich traditions of texture, form and structure of Jazz.

All Vince really did was introduce us to our long, lost ancestors.

Homework: Make a cup of hot chocolate (or if you're in Florida get a $1 sweet tea from Mickey D's since it's still 84 degrees outside). Put your feet up on something comfortable. Press play.

See you next Friday.


The gif is from Blazing Saddles
musicnotes.com provided the sheet music.

As a separate note, being that this Friday represents the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who (in my humble opinion) was one of the finest leaders our fair country has ever seen- I invite you to visit this particular entry, in honor of his memory today.


Merry Christmas from Listening Friday!

Ok.  So here's my new plan.  Firstly, you need to understand something about me.

I freaking love Christmas music.

I'm not sure why.  Perhaps it's because I've become too jaded and cynical to sit quietly and listen to whatever Clear Channel thinks I should listen to, or maybe it's that it only comes once a year. I don't know why I like it, but I really do.  I think it's great.  I love movies set during the holidays, because they usually incorporate Christmas music too.  I love that thanks to our ridiculously commercialized society we now actually start Christmas in January.  It really just means that one radio station that no one ever listens to under any other circumstances will now start playing Christmas music non-stop for 24 hours a day.

I bet you didn't know there are over 140 versions of Silent Night.

But, let's discuss the plan.  There are six Fridays left before Christmas, so I'm introducing our latest series as "The 6 Listening Friday's of Christmas".  A caveat, we will not be featuring the "12 Days of Christmas" unless I run out of ideas before the end.

Our first one will be a bonus, since some of you might be annoyed that I'm going to be choosing Christmas music before Turkey-Day.  The bonus is that you will not find a single YouTube video to Christmas music on this entry.  In fact, you will find FIVE YouTube videos to Christmas music on this entry!

All five of these selections have been painstakingly...well, selected from thousands, nay MILLIONS of popular, sacred and everything in between in the land of Christmas tunes.  In my very humble opinion, these are in fact the five, absolute worst pieces of music, let alone Christmas music that you will ever set ears upon.

Now, you may be thinking- "Hey, I thought this blog was about "good" music!  It says so up there right above Beethoven!"

First off, it's Brahms with headphones.

Second off, shut up.

These are examples I'd often share with my kids around the holidays for fun. While I agree, that we should always strive to provide the best in musicality in all aspects of musicianship and study, I also like to have a good time. Preferably while drinking copious amounts of egg nog.  Publix non-alcoholic, you heathens.

So, sit back and crank up the speakers, because here they are in no particular order!  The WORST Christmas music ever!

#1- "Sleigh Rough"

Sadly, I have no idea who recorded this.  It's a bit of a conundrum.  If you listen very closely you will hear that all of these musicians can actually play their instruments quite well.  The problem comes when they actually attempt to play them at the same time and in the same building.  To my trained ears, it smacks of semi-pro or professionals goofing off and having a good time.  The gentleman counting them off at the beginning sells it though, because his fervor in lighting the fuse on this 'Jingle Bomb' is believable enough to put into my head that these people are really trying to create here.  I'll let you be the judge of that.

#2- Johnny "Bowtie" Barstow- The First Noel

There comes a point in history, a single moment that defines your whole of existence in a single instant, and changes you into something not altogether completely different than you once were.  That moment is generally referred to as the first time you hear Johnny Bowtie sing.  A textbook example of what money and confidence can do, Johnny Bowtie has a studio album out of him singing his versions of Christmas tunes.  Someone graciously put these to a video of a Santa Claus puppet.  All About Jazz has a great review of the album, and of Johnny's particular style.  A quote-

"Some musicians spend years on technique, working hard to hone accepted skills like pitch and time. Barstow dispenses with such limitations."
My favorite part of this recording is just listening to the keyboardist patiently keeping up with the tempo changes.  He deserves a medal just for finishing within 30 seconds of Barstow.  I also applaud Barstow for his amazing ability to finish every single phrase with a non-chord tone.  Bravo.

#3- The TasteeBros - Oh Come All Ye Faithful

If Hell has elevators, the music played in them will most undoubtedly be performed by none other than the TasteeBros.  Scott Englebright and Donny Dyess formed the group in the 90's after discovering that by blowing harder, they could play higher on their trumpets. They took this to ridiculous levels, creating such sound pressure levels that the Earth was shifted from its standard orbit around the Sun and Christmas now starts in October.  It's science.

In doing some basic research on these guys, I've found that Scott actually has a wikipedia page and has been pretty successful.  He actually played with the Maynard Ferguson band (which is probably where he refined his stratospheric trumpet abilities) and later worked with Bill Holman, Bobby Caldwell, Paul Anka and many others.  Together with Dyess, he co authored several method books and published a few CD's of the TasteeBros playing it really high and not screwing it up.  This selection is my favorite of their song book, because it makes me think of your standard middle school trumpet player.  They can only think of one thing, and that's playing really high.  So they take this beautiful arrangement of a traditional Christmas song and sully it with their "range exercises".

#4- Meatwad- "Frosty The Red-Nosed Snowman"

A few years back, the creators of Aqua Teen Hunger Force decided that it would be a good idea to release a Christmas album sung by the characters on their show.  For those of you who don't know, ATHF is a show about three anthropomorphic fast food items that live in New Jersey next to a bald fat guy.  They originally pitched the show as having the food be detectives, but only as a way to get it approved for a pilot.  They quickly abandoned that plot and assumed an insane ride of both surreal and non sequitur hijinks.  The Christmas Album does border on the sacrilege at moments, but some tunes are innocently non-offensive such as the one we'll examine today.  Meatwad, with the brain power of a child, tries to sing through one of his holiday favorites with the help of his foul-mouthed neighbor, Carl.

#5- ...

The last piece for today is probably the most offensive, vile, contrite piece of musical drivel ever confabbed into what could be considered radio-worthy in the history of mankind.  I feel dirty and sinister for even thinking of it, let alone including it my list. It is in no way redeemable, and everyone who was involved in its production will live their lives out in hiding and ashamed, because no one in their right mind would dare show their face after recording such a train wreck of musical holiday-tude.  I can't even describe it further without becoming nauseous, but here it is.  The tune that killed Christmas, listen to it if you can and may God have mercy on our souls...

If you're still alive after that, you can look forward to next week being much, MUCH better than this one.  I needed a break from the high brow stuff so I hope that was worth your time.  We'll continue over the next five weeks with a countdown of some of the BEST Christmas music ever to grace the soundwaves of Earth.

Until then faithful readership, Happy Thanksgiving!

Homework: Gather the following-

3 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Freshly grated nutmeg

Put the cream, sugar, eggs (preferably cracking and removing the shell first), and milk into a sauce pan. Whisk the hell out of it and cook on low heat. Don't ever stop whisking.  Do this until it sticks to a spoon. Don't let it boil. If you let it boil, Christmas is ruined. Take it off the stove and dump in the vanilla extract. Probably whisk it some more.  If you're a communist, you can drink it like this. If you aren't, put it in the fridge and serve it ice cold.  It will kill you.

See you next Friday.


If anyone knows who recorded "Sleigh Rough" please let me know.  I'd love to find out!
Johnny Barstow performs with keyboardist Larry Goldings.  The article was written by John Kelman for AllAboutJazz.com.
The Tasteebros own all their stuff and I already named them up there.  
Aqua Teen Hunger Force is produced by Williams Street and Cartoon Network.
And OK, I really don't think that song is the worst ever. I like Mariah Carey the same as the next guy. But all I want for Christmas is some damn egg nog.
Oh yeah.  And wikipedia and youtube helped too.


Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

You're in Paris.  It's 1913 and you've just entered the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Within the large and beautiful theatre the crowd is tightly packed, all eagerly anticipating the premier of a young composer's new ballet.  The energy is thick in the humid air, and you can sense that this night is not going to be just any sort of of performance.

The house lights dim and the curtain is drawn quickly up into the fly space and you hear an ethereal, unworldly voice singing out high above the rustling bodies in the hall.  Unfortunately, that's the last bit of the music you'll hear tonight because you're sitting in the premier of Igor Stravinsky's (1882-1971) latest ballet, the "Rite of Spring" and half the audience just lost their damn minds.

Or just an average week in Springfield
There is a science that goes in to determining the point at which crowd mentality takes over and all hell theoretically will break loose.  Humans tend to be incredibly intelligent working in groups of 2 or 3. Any larger than that and a certain..."element" is introduced that alters the climate.  My college band director would refer to this as a personification of stupidity, humbly known as Mr. Stupid.  He's really not a bad guy, per se, perhaps misunderstood.  He's your friend, your brother, your father and your distant Aunt Gertrude. Mr. Stupid is that little voice that comes out when the momentum is not quite shifted entirely off the cliff of sanity into the valley of asinine, that simply says, "Do it."

And that is pretty much what happened on the April evening in a Parisian theatre.  Shortly after the introduction of the ballet, the crowd began jeering and heckling the orchestra, giving suggestions on how to proceed and lamenting the unarguably unique style of both music and dance to which they were being treated.

Within the crowd were two main schools of thought.  You had your upper-crusters who wanted to hear some pretty, inconsequential ballet and watch some chick with blocks in her shoes bounce around the stage for a few hours.  The other camp was essentially in favor of anything that would piss off the old geezers in the balconies.

I'm not sure today's culture can relate...
So, to explain what went wrong we do have to look at the choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky as well as the overall plot of the ballet.  The Rite of Spring explores Russian paganism and delves into a ritualistic homicide of a young girl who literally dances to death.  It's sharp, angular and violent.  The music was wholly representative of that.  If we look back into the growing trends from the Romantic era, music had become much more tactile and palpable.  It was being developed into more than repetitive themes and truly was arriving at a point where literally anything was fair game.  Stravinsky felt this, and was given the opportunity to explore the extent of his own abilities by his employer with the ballet company. Despite the creative team's anticipation, the French crowd was not completely ready for the musical affront they were to endure.

Fueled by the dichotomy of classes, they began fighting amongst themselves, eventually turning their mutual wrath upon the orchestra, who never stopped playing.  The dancers on stage couldn't hear their musical cues over the roar of the angry crowd turned mob.  It got so bad that at one point Nijinsky was shouting the counts from the wings.  Over 40 people were removed by force from the concert hall that had erupted in a riot.

The first run continued unabated with a few performances following, but the pallor of that opening night cast a deep shadow upon the work at large.  Nijinsky was later cited by Stravinsky for completing his vision almost to perfection, thus placing him side by side with the criticisms lodged solely with the so called "ugly dancing".

However, Stravinsky's music was also not spared from the slings and arrows from the pens of many critics of the day.  The score itself sounds to me very metallic in nature.  It's like a gigantic machine that's not quite running properly, and the results are sometimes catastrophic. The artists at Disney interpreted it as the beginning and the end of the dinosaurs, embracing the earthen and pugilistic nature of the work.

Today, it's considered a great turning point into the modern era of music, and is often cited by many composers who have come forth since, bringing unique and often initially unpopular ideas to the forefront of musical culture. The choreography to such abrasive music is a challenge to both the dancer and the audience, but I feel Stravinsky truly captured the anguish and despair that one might exhibit when exposed to such a heinous and vile act as human sacrifice.

And how
So today, you get two examples.  The first is a recording of the Atlanta symphony with no video.  The second is a dramatization of what the BBC interprets happened during the performance.  Youtube's being weird though, so I think you have to go to the site to watch it.  It's pretty good though, so it's worth your time.  If for some reason it doesn't start right, jump to 45 minutes in for the fun part.  

Homework: Listen to the first example with your eyes closed.  Picture how one might actually dance to this.  After you've had enough, watch the second example.  Bonus points if you listen/watch the whole thing.

See you next Friday.